Lenny Russo's laugh makes me laugh. It's a guttural chuckle, slightly diabolical, streaked with a smidgen of self-satisfaction, as if he's amused by his own (often profoundly inappropriate) joke. Chances are, he probably is.
I say this because one of the many reasons to admire his relocated and slightly renamed Heartland Restaurant & Direct Market is that the Russo guffaw has more opportunity to really reverberate in the new, cavernous space.
But take one gander at the spotless workrooms, the spacious private dining areas, the three chef's tables, the long deli counter, the gleaming exhibition kitchen and the constantly-in-motion crew, and here's the message that echoes, loud and clear: A lasting commitment to locally raised foods built and supports this impressive enterprise.
The restaurant's menu, which changes daily, survived the move intact from the restaurant's original Mac-Groveland home. What's new is a spacious lounge that specializes in imaginative cocktails (made using -- what else? -- regionally sourced spirits) and a shop and deli. As a package, there's nothing else quite like it in the state.
The restaurant's diners and the market's shoppers clearly benefit from the years Russo has devoted to nurturing connections with family farms and small producers.
In the spreadsheet that whirs inside his brain, Russo tracks the contributions of more than 70 local purveyors. One reward? A year-round in-house farmers market, which serves as a larder for the restaurant, as a well as a shop for the neighborhood. It specializes in items not easily found in supermarkets or, for that matter, most farmers markets.
The coolers and freezers are filled with a modest but meticulously produced selection of pantry items, all crafted in the adjacent kitchens, including full-flavored lamb, crayfish and duck stocks; tubs of glistening rendered pork fat and jars of fantastic goat rillettes; super-luscious ice creams; and heat-and-serve soups.
Preserving the harvest is another priority, and Heartlanders have a knack for filling wide-mouth Ball Mason jars, placing a welcome emphasis on the unusual: a robust sweet-sour eggplant caponata, a bright roasted sweet pepper-crabapple jelly, vividly colorful pickled cantaloupe.
Russo also reserves shelf space for a small cache of products produced elsewhere. Bakers will fall head over heels for the deliriously good high-fat-content (85 percent) butter that Hope Creamery in Hope, Minn., produces exclusively for Heartland.
Meat and more, much more
The day the doors opened, the market became the east metro's top butcher shop, if only on the basis of the extraordinary house-made sausages, pâtés and terrines. But the counter is also the place to find the pristine meats, poultry and freshwater fish that Russo serves next door in the restaurant.
Along with a small assortment of baked goods, the deli counter produces a handful of sandwiches, and they're so good that it's difficult to resist the impulse to dissect them and discern their contents.
Another reason to climb the market's lovingly restored cast-iron staircase? A few hot grab-and-go items, including a moderately priced daily entree. I recently lucked into a thick slice of bison tenderloin, rolled in herbs and roasted in salsa verde until the lean, pink meat barely resisted against the knife. Now that's lunch.
Attention to detail
Russo's cooking style has always been to put the ingredients front and center and manipulate them as little as possible. His aesthetic is spare and uncomplicated -- think Matisse, not Pollock -- and at its best, the straightforward preparations bounce flattering flavors off each prized ingredient. A richly porky pork chop, seared on the grill but coyly pink inside, tasted even better against the teasing heat of a jalapeño pepper-apple jam. A slaw, made with vegetables so seasonal that I could have set my watch to it, was the exact foil to succulent walleye in a delicate cornmeal crust.
I love how Russo features ingredients that get little or no play elsewhere (spigariello, anyone?), as if purveyors keep their secret stashes in reserve for him and, by extension, us. One key example: Russo buys magnificent whole wild boars from Money Creek Ranch near Houston, Minn., then deftly converts one of the state's premium proteins into a bevy of one-of-a-kind dishes. The superb results could be a ruddy braunschweiger or a speckled head cheese, each served with a parade of flavor-enhancing condiments, or it might be a slow-cooked shoulder, paired with duck sausages for what Russo dubs "Midwestern cassoulet."
Veal, goat, elk, pheasant, treated with unadulterated tender loving care, all have a place of pride here, alongside basics like a grilled-to-order steak with potatoes, crisp-skinned roast chicken, even a terrific burger. One blustery night I dropped into the lounge and dug into the kind of autumn meal that wraps you up like a treasured hand-me-down blanket: cracklingly good grilled chicken sausages served over a rich potato-celeriac purée. Not bad for $14.
Even the basics are spectacular. The satisfying soups are exciting single-serving meals. I like to visit just to get a crack at the bread basket, which contains an ever-changing pair of rolls. There's nothing basic about the aforementioned charcuterie, or the elegant cheese selection.
Downtown business engine
For all the important economic support Russo provides to rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, Heartland 2.0 has bestowed a considerable boost to urban St. Paul, revitalizing a long-underutilized corner of Lowertown.
An Old Navy store could comfortably fit inside the vast space, which is split between two levels and is organized, in a U-shaped series of sparsely decorated rooms, around an atrium carved out of the building's interior. If, like me, you grew up thinking Butler Square was a supreme design achievement, then you'll be all over the exposed timber-and-brick vibe of the place.
The prettiest space is the dining room, an oasis of understatement that overlooks the St. Paul Farmers Market and manages to strike a balance between its special-occasion and Midwestern-casual duties. One notable feature is a mural composed of weathered barn wood, the boards fashioned into a herringbone pattern to create a soft-spoken reminder of the restaurant's family-farm DNA, also reminiscent of the pieced murals of Minnesota artist George Morrison.
A few flaws in the mix
Heartland is not without its issues. The occasional dish, often of the vegetarian persuasion, can taste not quite fully formed, and the hyper-seasonal desserts are more earnest than indulgent. The highly polished service staff, headed by Russo's spouse and business partner, Mega Hoehn, bears the same apple-cheeked ethos as the local-local-local food being served, but sometimes the ranks feel a little thin for the big-ticket price tag. Because the lounge lies in the well-worn path between dining room and kitchen, it can come off more like a corridor and less like a relaxing hideaway. As for the market, it feels understocked, although I suspect that Russo and his young, enthusiastic crew are only getting started.
Here comes the naysayer's chorus: "But isn't four stars synonymous with perfect?" Nope. In this bell curve, four stars means "exceptional," and, frankly, there isn't a more fitting word for this urban-rural nexus. Heartland is a role model for the burgeoning local foods movement, one that's bound to become more important with each passing year.
That sound you hear? It's Russo, laughing. Hopefully, all the way to the bank.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757